3 common tight muscles

Posted on August 4, 2011

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After writing up this post on massage techniques I had a few people ask me, “How do I know if a muscle is tight or long?”

While there are norms for neutral body alignment, taking out your goniometer or protractor to measure every angle of every joint is a royal pain in the ass. However, knowing the norms for various angles and such of the body and then comparing those measurements to the norm is one way of doing things.

A much easier way of doing things is to simply look at yourself or someone else and watch how they move. Typically people with imbalances and or pain will move differently than others.

Now this is not something everyone can do as everyone isn’t going to know what to look for, know what’s normal, or abnormal, etc.

I use a bit of both techniques. That is, with the things I see more often I normally can just eyeball things and know pretty quickly what’s going on. With issues I don’t see as readily I might go a bit slower and get an idea of how many degrees of rotation the joint is getting, etc.

Since that doesn’t qualify as much of a helpful answer, I thought I’d share some of the most common muscle imbalances I see and show how you can tell what’s long and what’s tight. This should give a general idea about how to go through this process.

It’s important to note that just because I see this often DOES NOT MEAN THIS IS YOU. While I may see something in 9 out of 10 people, you could be the 1 out of 10 who this does not apply to, and thus performing the treatment those 9 people would do will actually mess you up more. This is really more of a quick, general guide to figuring out if a muscle is long or tight.

With that said, many of you will probably see a picture/video below and easily be able to recognize a pattern you or someone you know have as well.

So I don’t turn this into a textbook, in this post I’m going to show 3 common tight muscles and another post I’ll talk about 3 common long muscles.

Alright, so getting started I usually already know something to look for because the client will tell me they are having pain in a specific region during specific movements. Next, I watch them move the joint they are having issues with.

After that I watch how their whole body moves; if I notice an aberrant movement I’ll ask them, “Does your [insert body part or joint] ever bother you?” Sometimes this is no, sometimes this is yes (even though they didn’t mention it initially).

Lastly, we’ll do some drills to help loosen or tighten up the muscle(s) I believe to be negatively affecting them and see the result.

Here are some typical tight muscles:

 1) Latissmus dorsi (The Lats)

Stretches for lower back pain

best lat stretches

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to self-assess: This one is a bit harder to spot from just looking in the mirror but one telltale sign is a forward shoulder or shoulders.

Tight lats

Right picture is bad, left is good. From: www.manualtherapymentor.com

An excessive arch in the lower back can be present as well:

anterior pelvic tilt lower back pain

Look at the excessive lower back arch on the left, right side is better but not great

 A different assessment that typically makes things more clear is this: Stand against a wall and have everything from the lower back to the head flat against the wall. For those who say your butt is too big, your butt shouldn’t be on the wall to begin with.

From here, bend your elbows to 90 degrees, make sure your wrist and elbows are in a straight line and your palms are facing eachother, then raise your arms overhead and try to get them to touch the wall without your lower back coming off the wall. I’d say I see maybe 1 out of 20 people who can do this properly their first time. It often ends up looking like this:


From the picture of the lat, we can see that it connects all the way down to the lower back from the arm. Therefore, if it’s tight, the lower back arches when the arm(s) are raised.

This is what we’re shooting for:

 

Looking again at the first video you can see the neck hyperextend as well. This is another way to assess forward head posture (see below for more) as we don’t want the neck to move, but rather have it stay nice and packed i.e. keep the chin tucked.

Next, if the person is able to do this then watch them from the front. More than likely they are getting their arms up to the wall because their elbows and wrists aren’t staying in a straight line. Typically the elbows start to flare out and the person makes an upside down V formation. Like this (really watch the left arm):

 

Since the lower back is staying nice and straight the lat is now rotating the upper arm inward, again because it’s tight. Keep everything straight!

Like I said, I barely ever see anyone who can do this. If that back isn’t coming off the wall then the arms are rotating and if the arms aren’t rotating then the back is coming off the wall. Give it a shot.

Pain that may be associated with tight lats: Shoulder pain, neck pain (side of neck), lower back pain (especially when lifting the arms overhead).


How to loosen up:

-Performing the arm raising drill correctly works great. If your lower back is coming off the wall, or if the arms are internally rotating, then just don’t lift the arms up that high yet. It takes some time to be able to get them all the way up to the wall.

-Good posture while sitting and walking

-NOT sleeping on your stomach

2) Peroneals

everted feet

How to self-assess: Take a look at the feet, walking or standing works, if the feet are turned out rather than pointed straight ahead there’s a good chance the peroneals are tight.

tight peroneals foot pain

 

Sometimes the feet being turned out can be a result of the tightness up at the hip, but I won’t go into too much detail on this as I rarely see this in the average population.

Basically, look at the knees and look at the feet, are the feet turned out more than the knees? Or do the knees point straight ahead but the feet don’t? Peroneals are probably tight.

Pain that may be associated: Any and all types of foot pain; knee pain.

How to loosen up:

Some massage work with a tennis ball works great for this. Make sure to move the ball in an up and down fashion, primarily down towards the feet. There will be more trigger points up around the knee than anywhere else.

 

tight peroneals

 

Calf raise from deficit with foot straight. This isn’t necessarily a stretch for the peroneals; the exercise helps loosen them up indirectly. Often times when someone has everted feet they have weak plantarflexors (calf muscles are part of these). Strengthening the plantarflexors helps the ability to walk with the feet straight, which then loosens up the peroneals.

 Peroneals stretch

Pay close attention to your foot being straight during this exercise. Often times on the descent the feet will slowly start to turn out after each rep.

For more one this check out this post that talks a bit about overpronation.

In terms of daily life, make sure to walk with your feet and knees pointed straight ahead. Sometimes when trying to walk with the feet turned in people will turn the knees in even moreso. Thus, the feet and knees still aren’t pointed in the same direction. Something to look for.

 

3) Forward head posture / Sternocleidomastoid

 

Forward head posture neck pain

Sternocleidomastoid (SCM) muscle

How to self-assess:

Nearly everybody nowadays is walking around with their head like this:

Neck posture neck pain

Note how far the head is in front of the shoulders

There are a crapload of muscles around the neck contributing to this so I will only talk about one to keep things simple. That one muscle is sternocleidomastoid. The SCM muscle pulls the back of the head down and forward, thus causing the “forward head posture.” This is pretty easy to recognize by looking at someone’s neck while standing/walking. While the neck should have a little bit of a curve, a tight SCM will cause the curve to be excessive.

Pain that may be associated: Headaches, neck pain in the back of the neck.

How to loosen up: Keep chin tucked during everything! Pay attention to literally everything you do. You might notice you drive with your head forward, or you lean forward when on the computer, your head might tilt back while lying down or sleeping at night, etc.

Stretch for neck pain

Also, during any type of exercise constantly remind yourself to tuck your chin. This is by far the most common thing I say to people during training. See the above video on the lat again for an example of this.

Alright that’ll do it for the tight muscles. Back with the long muscles sometime soon.

Update: Removed foam rolling the lats as this is something I no longer agree with. 

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